The skinny, redheaded teenager looks skittish as he approaches a 21-year-old homeless youth we will call Ricky. The pale boy is looking for weed, and passes Ricky $14. This illegal scene unfolds at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue at the entrance to a busy subway station, and under the watchful eyes of a motley crew of homeless youth.
Right across the street is Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti’s Hollywood field office. If he and his staff were to peer out, they could easily see what a failed enterprise the city’s mangled regulation of medical marijuana has been.
Ricky leads the gangly redhead across Western. Allowing the Weekly to tag along, Ricky commands the boy: “Stand over there and wait.” Even though there’s a marijuana dispensary just 10 feet from the bus stop, right next door to Garcetti’s building, Ricky disappears around the corner, planning to do business with a different one.
He has his choice. By his count there are 15 dispensaries within walking distance of Western and Hollywood. Recreational pot is still illegal, but the law no longer applies for the street kids and hipsters who file in and out of the many marijuana stores.
In 2005, every city in California was busy adopting ordinances to allow for medical-marijuana storefronts while keeping out the bad actors and illegal peddlers.
But the Los Angeles City Council — the highest-paid in America at nearly $180,000 per year — couldn’t get it done. Led by laid-back Council President Eric Garcetti, its dithering was epic. No other major city proved so incapable. On May 3, 2005, Councilman Dennis Zine moved to regulate dispensaries, but City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee — Jose Huizar, Ed Reyes and the recently departed Jack Weiss — went to war over how to word the regulation.
They wasted well over a year. While other California cities easily put regulations in place, L.A. weed dispensaries exploded in number, attracting extensive criminal activity and drawing protests from neighborhoods.
Pot-friendly Berkeley, where more people wear hemp than denim, has allowed three medical-marijuana dispensaries, or one for every 35,000 Berkeley-ites. Compare that to Los Angeles, with one dispensary for every 6,000 people.
“A marijuana dispensary can’t open without a permit,” says Wendy Cosin, Berkeley’s deputy planning director for its Medical Cannabis Commission. When told about L.A.’s runaway situation, she replies: “Oh my God! I didn’t realize L.A. was the Wild West.”
Zine, a former cop, in 2007 drafted a new motion demanding the Planning Department and City Attorney create an “immediate” temporary moratorium. But Delgadillo and the three members of PLUM, Huizar, Reyes and Weiss, spent nine months on the “immediate” ban. The moratorium, finally approved by the City Council, was so incompetently worded that it created a massive loophole — and legal nightmare.
In 2006, L.A.’s four dispensaries jumped to 98. In 2007, there were 187. Then came the inept “moratorium.” Pot dispensaries soared to more than 600. Zine today says, “It’s like you get the first whiff of smoke and then there is an explosion.”
The debacle was unmatched in California, pointing up L.A.’s reputation as being run by an overpaid, disinterested City Council and a distracted, ineffective mayor who have repeatedly failed when it comes to quality-of-life issues, ranging from their inability to control illegal billboards to their illegal interpretation of state housing density laws.
One of the more popular dispensaries in Garcetti’s district is located in what critics say is a dubiously self-described religious center, the Liberty Bell Temple II. Standing near a mural of pothead heroes Bob Marley and Haile Selassie, in an alley leading to the barred entrance of his store, the red-eyed, dreadlocked owner, Ed “Weedman” Forchion, takes a moment to celebrate the fact that City Hall’s bumbling has turned Los Angeles into the storefront pot capital of the United States.
“It’s like 1933 all over again, weed prohibition is over,” Forchion says. “We have won the reefer revolution.”
Forchion is a marketing machine. He openly admits to the Weekly that he pays medical-marijuana cardholders in weed to drive around in his van, the Weedmobile. His wants to use Twitter to tell followers where the Weedmobile is so that he or his minions can hand out free grams of grass — just a taste, to give Forchion the edge in the battle for pot-market share.
Just down the street at a small Hollywood Boulevard dispensary called Kush Mart, Forchion alleges, the owners gave two pounds of weed and $2,000 to rapper Snoop Dogg to have his photo taken among the dispensary’s rows of potent bud. The owners of Kush Mart did not return repeated calls made by L.A. Weekly, and Snoop Dogg’s attorney, Donald Etra, said “I have no knowledge of that.”
“Kush Mart — now that is a good name,” Forchion says wistfully. “It’s like the Kmart of weed.”
Many of these pot storefronts used the now-decried 2007 “hardship” loophole written by Deputy City Attorney Jeri Burge, which lets dispensaries ignore a city moratorium on new dispensaries. The moratorium has worked like the citywide “ban” on illegal billboards. For 17 months, Delgadillo, Burge, Garcetti and the Villaraigosa Administration watched as 533 pot sellers buried City Hall in hardship-exemption filings and opened up near schools, churches, preschools and quiet neighborhoods.
On June 6, Zine took the microphone at a fiery City Council chamber debate, and hammered the stern-jawed Jeri Burge, who had personally insisted on the hardship exemption. Incredibly to some, she continues to insist her ill-advised loophole was “a very, very, very good way to proceed.”
Without naming names, she pointed the finger at the City Council and its PLUM committee — Reyes, Huizar and Weiss — for allowing Burge’s hardship loophole to become the de facto city regulation.
San Francisco, by contrast, has 23 dispensaries, or one for every 34,782 people. The city is a bastion of liberal politics yet it has real pot rules — not broad exemptions and fake bans. “We have limited the clubs by setting standards,” says Environmental Health Director Rajiv Bhatia, including charging a stiff $12,108 fee to apply for a permit. In fact, San Francisco has slashed in half the number of dispensaries since 2005, using a strict permitting process to weed out crime magnets and profiteers — the opposite of what L.A. is doing.
In Los Angeles, closing down the profiteers and criminal enterprises amidst the Wild West atmosphere allowed by City Hall will be a difficult enterprise.
Frank Mateljan of the City Attorney’s office describes a long process. First, the City Council has to vote to deny a shop its hardship exemption. Then the city’s Department of Building and Safety must try to make the shop close down. Then, the City Attorney must prosecute storefronts that resist all that.
When City Councilwoman Janice Hahn asked Burge on June 9 how long it would take, Burge could only shrug her shoulders.
Back at Western and Hollywood, Ricky drops off the little green bag. He says he didn’t make any money. He’s in business for the long run. His suppliers openly operate at dozens of locations in L.A.’s neighborhoods, and won’t be leaving anytime soon.